The objective of trust

The readings on rhetoric were profoundly applicable to the classes I teach: Communications Management I and II. Taught as a continuum, the classes begin with defining PR, including the history and ethical implications, the core competencies of the communications professional, now and in the future, and then onto strategy and planning, beginning with the RACE formula (Research Analysis Communications Evaluation).

I teach my students about the communications objective/engagement continuum: awareness, understanding, acceptance and then behaviour change. It originally applied to employee engagement, but it easily works when explaining the various levels of communications objectives. But the article by Robert Heath adds an added layer: trust. He argues, and I agree, that the value that public relations has to society is that of trust. (Heath, Robert, 2000). “Trust is the ultimate goal, beyond understanding and agreement” (Heath, R., p. 80).

And if we think about it, and most of our readings, and much of the news that relates to our readings, it really all comes down to trust. “People identify with those they trust,” writes Heath. “They also trust those who enact and advocate narratives that they accept and enact” (Heath, p. 81). Let’s look at a couple of examples of misplaced trust, ripped from the headlines:

1. Ghomeshi. In his mea culpa “it’s them not me” Facebook post, he uses his popularity and power — just as the mass media use their power as discussed in this week’s readings on mass media — to build trust. He all but says, “trust me, it’s their word against mine” when he writes: “But I am telling this story to you so the truth is heard.” As we witnessed in the days following, his was not the truth we trusted, despite his position of power. To their credit, his public relations firms ended their relationship with them, ensuring their trust and their reputation stayed intact. They saw, as Heath outlines, that their own credibility was based on “unfailing demonstrated commitment to advance society because of the good of society, not the singular good of the advocate” (Heath, p. 81).

2. Bill Cosby. Cosby’s reputation as everyone’s favourite 80s-sweater wearing funny dad is faltering everyday as allegations of sexual harassment and drugged rape continue. “We may be looking at America’s greatest serial rapist that ever got away with this for the longest amount of time,” his latest victim has said. “He got away with it because he was hiding behind the image of Cliff Huxtable.” And the longer he stays quiet, the longer his source credibility disintegrates. This is one situation no public relations firm would be willing to take on. It’s just too late.

If we as practitioners of public relations adhere to the Bryant-Wallace “The Oath of a Public Speaker” (Heath, p. 79), we will all be doing our profession proud — a profession that suffers from the ironic shoemaker-syndrome (our own profession suffers from bad PR). Slightly amended it could very well be our own Hippocratic Oath, perhaps a necessary step when the notion of trust is becoming increasingly just that: a notion. We must all act in the public interest, as the CPRS definition of Public Relations states, not in the interest of Jian, or Bill, or a particular government. It’s our “do no harm” clause. Trust me.

Engagement but also communications objectives

Engagement but also communications objectives

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Twitter: Public Sphere or Public Square

It’s something of coincidence that the week I began to hate Twitter was the week I was immersed in Critical Theory and more specifically, the work of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Fascinated by Habermas’ concepts around the Lifeworld, the System and Public Sphere, I began immediately trying to see parallels in how we use social media. I was most interested in the idea that Twitter was the technological marvel that merged the Lifeworld — typically the domain of the private and information shared only among close family and friends – with the Public Sphere – the place where people come together to talk about issues of importance to them.

Twitter has a myriad of uses. From sharing the mundane such as today’s lunch special or cat video to live updates on breaking news to intense discussions around social issues, Twitter gives everyone the opportunity to join the conversation.

I am a big fan of Twitter. Since joining in 2007, I have found it to be not only a source of amazing information and great entertainment, but also a great way to meet new, fascinating people (including Stephen Harper’s deceased cat, Cheddar Harper, with whom I’ve had an on again-off again relationship for a number of years).

Cheddar

I remember doing a workshop on Twitter and sharing Margaret Atwood’s love of Twitter. She called the Twittersphere an “odd and uncanny place” and akin to having fairies in your garden. Atwood talks about the whimsical nature of Twitter and the variety of interactions possible.  An idyllic world indeed.

Back to Habermas and my somewhat utopian view that Twitter was the 21st century Public Sphere where not only where dialogue flourishes, but “ideal speech” – respectful, reasoned discourse among individuals – is possible. That all changed with Jian Ghomeshi.

mayIt was fascinating to watch the story evolve on Twitter from the very first Tweets on Sunday, October 26th as people (including me) expressed disbelief that the CBC would fire Ghomeshi through growing shock and then anger as the story developed. Some high profile people – including Green Party leader Elizabeth May – tweeted their support for Ghomeshi in the first hours before the Toronto Star article with the serious allegations of violence and non-consensual sex was published. Those supportive tweets would be retweeted over and over again in the coming days with vitriolic comments added despite the mea culpes from people like May.

I began to see what I had been denying for so long – Twitter, far from being an idyllic Public Sphere, is in reality a vast echo chamber that gives everyone tries to yell louder than the next person. Or worse, the public square where people can be pilloried and shamed for all to see.

I saw people I respected and considered “progressives” attacking other like-minded individuals because they weren’t politically correct enough or hadn’t expressed their outrage loudly enough. There was a rush to post your opinion, then trumpet why it was the correct one.

Zosia Belski wrote an interesting piece in the Globe and Mail on October 29 called “Social media, victim blaming and the two camps enshrined in Ghomeshi-gate, that talks about the rush to judgement. She quotes Alfred Hermida, author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters as saying about social media It’s the way that space is designed. You’re expected to react right away, not to take a minute to consider ‘Do I really think that?’…Immediacy privileges reaction rather than reflection. It fosters ardour rather than nuance. These are certainly not the conditions necessary for ideal speech.

All of this is not to argue that there haven’t been some amazing memes that have come from the Ghomeshi affair, including the “BeenRapedNeverReported” hashtag that has shined a much-needed spotlight on why women don’t report sexual abuse and violence. It also doesn’t mean I’ve given up on Twitter. It means I need to look at Twitter with more of a critical eye, and when I tweet, ensure I’ve taken some time to reflect rather than just react.

Habermas: Connecting theory to what we do everyday

I must admit, I have struggled my way through a number of the readings this semester. I have relied heavily on the class, in particular others interpretations of the readings, to better understand several theorists and traditions (Babe, the social-psychological tradition, etc.). But with that being said, the Habermas readings, particularly our class discussion, reminded me just how applicable all of this is to our everyday roles as communicators.

Jian Ghomeshi (Facebook photo)

Sudersan hit it straight on the head when saying “amidst the ruins of many a social theory, Jürgen Habermas stands alone in his endeavor to bridge the vast void  between theory and practice …” (Sudersan, 1998, 253). It is this bridge that allowed our class discussion to link to a variety of current events, such as the Ottawa shooting, Jian Ghomeshi and Ebola, and then bring the conversation back to Habermas.

For days after that class I drifted back to our conversation, particularly as more and more details emerged around Ghomeshi. A great deal of Habermas’ arguments were grounded in the concept of ideal speech, including everyone having a chance to argue and question, without the more powerful and prestigious having an unequal say (Gingrich, n.d.). In the Ghomeshi case, a number of the women have said that it is his power that originally stopped them from coming forward, including the fear of his power leading to online victim blaming. Social media also played a massive role in how this story unraveled. Even though a number of the alleged events took place before social media was a major player, Ghomeshi essentially broke the story himself on Facebook. By doing so, at the same time he garnered so much online attention that it made other victims realize “it wasn’t just me; I’m not the only one,” thus completely shifting public support towards his victims.

Butler-Jones became the public face Canadians trusted during the fight against H1N1 (Canada.com photo)

Habermas’ distinction between communicative action and strategic action can also be directly linked to a number of current events today. As Levine explained, Habermas described communicative action as trying to persuade someone else of the truth, where instrumental or strategic action is more about trying to get someone else to do what you want (Levine, 2012). This instantly makes me think about the communications surrounding Ebola. From the Canadian perspective, I understand why the government leads in this type of situation, but there is something about an elected politician instead of a medical expert being the spokesperson that doesn’t sit right. With Ebola, Federal Health Minister Ambrose has been front and center, with now Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Gregory Taylor, at her side. Federal Health Minister Aglukkaq handled H1N1 much differently, and was praised for stepping aside and letting the medical expert, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. David Butler Jones, become the trusted face Canadians could rely on. Politicians run a fine line between acting in their best interest and the best interest of this constitutes.

All in all a very interesting theorist, please feel free to comment on how you think Habermas links to the realities of today.

References

Bolkenius, M. (2014). Health Ministers discuss Ebola preparedness in Canada. Public Health Agency of Canada. Retrieved from http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?mthd=tp&crtr.page=1&nid=897289&crtr.tp1D=1

Ghomeshi, J. (2014). Dear everyone. Facebook post. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/jianghomeshi

Gringrich, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Work of Jurgen Habermas. University of Regina. Retrieved from http://moodle233.msvu.ca/m23/course/view.php?id=3449

Kirkey, S. (2013). David Butler-Jones, Canada’s top doctor, stepping down a year after suffering stroke. Canada.com. Retrieved from http://o.canada.com/uncategorized/david-butler-jones-canadas-top-doctor-stepping-down-a-year-after-suffering-stroke

Levine, P. (2012). Habermas and critical theory (a primer). A Blog for Civic Renewal. Retrieved from http://peterlevine.ws/?p=9224

Solomon, E. (2014). Ottawa shooting: The face-to-face encounter that ended the attack on Parliament. CBC.ca. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/ottawa-shooting-the-face-to-face-encounter-that-ended-the-attack-on-parliament-1.2812802

Sudersan, P. (1998). Habermas and Critical Social Theory. Indian Philosophical Quarterly. (XXV, II), 253-264. Retrieved from http://moodle233.msvu.ca/m23/pluginfile.php/158173/mod_resource/content/1/Habermas%20%20Critical%20Social%20Theory.pdf

Group think and Jian’s victims

I’m posting again because, admittedly, my first post was cheeky. It did get the ball rolling, however. And it did reflect my initial struggles to compute and connect theory to practical. Now that we’re past post modernism, I feel the worst might be over. I have to say, thank goodness for Jian, because almost everything that’s happening can be pushed through the lens of the theories we are learning.

I was looking forward to the articles on organizational communication, assuming I would instantly be able to relate it back to my experience working for a global corporation with multiple layers of management. And I did. One of the components of ecological theory — a “generalized theory of change” — as expressed in the reading, is retention, which are the routines, bundled competencies that allow an organization to do what it does (Monge, P. and Poole, M.S., 2008, pp 681-682) In other words, its governance. It’s the “we’ve always done it this way” answer that resists change. Change does eventually come, usually with a merger, or new technology, or a massive reorganization (or all of the above). I witnessed this many times and it wasn’t always pretty.

But it was the second reading, Social Identity, Self-categorization, and the Communication of Group Norms that most resonated, particularly since I had just finished marking papers by my post grad PR certificate students that had them come up with a Team Charter. The assignment had them think about the norms of behaviour, the group rules, the communications principles and consequences for un-group-like behaviour. They were to talk about the four forces of small group formation: norming, storming, forming and performing, how personalities impact communications and decision-making (all part of the sociopsychological tradition). Turns out I’m teaching them organizational communications. (And after their grades, turns out they should have read this article as part of their research)! The entire article was a primer on small group work and group decision-making (or lack thereof).

Lucy DeCoutere  Photo by thestar.com

Lucy DeCoutere
Photo by thestar.com

photo by thestar.com

Reva Seth
Photo by thestar.com

When the article turned to leadership, that’s when I had my aha! What we have been witnessing with the discussion of women victimized by sexual abuse, by collective hashtags like #BeenRapedNeverReported, is group formation. When actress Lucy DeCoutere came out publicly about  the violence she experienced at the hands of Ghomeshi, she gave permission for many other women (now nine, plus one man) to follow suit, be it with a name, like Reva Seth, or anonymously. As a consequence, followers are prepared to take risks (Hogg, M.A. and Reid, S.A. 2006, p. 20) such as going public, sharing their story or even reporting it to police (three women have pressed charges). A social movement was created, and perhaps we will see a paradigm shift to rethink how women are treated in the workplace and how women can communicate harrassment in a safe environment. As the article states, “the hurdle for social mobilization is that social protest carries personal risk that inhibits participation” (Hogg, M.A. and Reid, S.A., 2006, p. 20). Nothing could be truer for these women. But it has to start somewhere. Thanks Lucy. #IBelieveLucy

References:

Hogg, Michael A. and Reid, Scott A. 2006. Social Identity, Self Categorization, and the Communication of Group Norms, Communication Theory, pp. 7-30. Retrieved: http://moodle233.msvu.ca/m23/pluginfile.php/159716/mod_resource/content/1/Hogg%20%20Reid%20Group%20Norms.pdf

Monge, Peter and Poole, Marshall Scott. 2008. The Evolution of Organizational Communication. Journal of Communication, pp. 679-692. Retrieved: http://moodle233.msvu.ca/m23/pluginfile.php/159714/mod_resource/content/1/Monge%20%20Poole%20Org%20Comm%20Theory.pdf

Public discourse in the Rhetorical Tradition and Habermas’ Theory

I was really jazzed by our course readings on Habermas. His theories were down-to-earth, practical, applicable to the modern world, and very relevant to the current events unfolding during the week of reading and discussing his theories (Oct 26-Nov 1, 2014).

The readings about Habermas reminded me of one of another theory we read earlier. I looked back on the moodle posts and found it on page 135 of Robert T. Craig’s “Communication as a Field” article, right in the title of the section: “The Rhetorical Tradition: Communication as a Practical Art of Discourse”. (Craig, 1999, p. 135) Aha, read on!

A double-check on the meaning of public discourse revealed “A fancy way of saying public discussion. When you have people on a panel show, they are having public discourse – in other words, discussing something in public.” (Yahoo Answers, 2012)
Rhetoric was defined as “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing”. (Oxford, 2014)

Turning to Habermas, we find a description of public discourse in Peter Levine’s blog entry (Levine, 2012). Levine describes the way Habermas defines the public sphere as “the set of forums and institutions in which diverse people come together to talk about common concerns. It includes civic associations, editorial pages of newspapers, town meetings and parts of the internet.”

Back to Craig, who says about the rhetorical tradition: “This way of theorizing communication is useful for explaining why our participation in discourse, especially public discourse, is important and how it occurs, and holds forth the possibility that the practice of communication can be cultivated and improved through critical study and education.” (Craig, 1999, p. 135) I heartily agree with this statement!

jian

Jian Ghomeshi

A very relevant section in the Craig article: “We know some people are better communicators than others, and that the best examples of rhetoric can rise to the level of great art.” (p. 135) How relevant to the Jian Ghomeshi situation! The parallel between Craig’s statement and Ghomeshi’s skill at communicating in the public sphere (radio) is striking.

An interesting question here would be how public discourse could be balanced, and be free communication, as we see Haberman’s theory described by Stowe (2010), “Free and open communication should be the basis of all social interaction”, if one of the communicators’ skillset far exceeds any other. We saw Ghomeshi’s incredible ability to gain sympathy and support in his Facebook post on Sunday, October 26, 2014 (Facebook, 2014). We then witness a deluge of public discourse over the weeks to come about the truth of that post, and the effect of his convincing words.

Both Habermas and the rhetorical theory see public debate as having the potential to convince and improve the world for the better. Gengrich tells us Habermas thought debate in the public sphere can “create the possibility of greater reason, justice and human freedom”. (Gingrich, n.d., p. 1) This is true in many cases, such as election debates, talk shows, town halls or public meetings.

Where public discourse does not always show greater reason, justice and human freedom, is in the public space of the internet. Unfortunately, this easily accessible, world-wide, open and free method of communication and debate is often besmirched by thoughtless people who do not take the time to critically think through their words before they bang on their keyboard and share their comments. Many people waste the opportunity to engage, enlighten and share ideas, and the internet becomes a place for insults, oversharing and meaningless cryptic comments.

Mike, Bree, Andy and Dayna

Case-Rowling family dinner discussion

This topic of public discourse led to much discussion at the dinner table, and has potential for many other private as well as public debates. Many of us would benefit to consider the question: “Where do you see public discourse in the modern world, and where does it work well?”

 

 

 

References

Craig, R.T. (1999). Communication as a Field. Communication Theory, 9:2, p 135-136. Retrieved from http://moodle233.msvu.ca/m23/pluginfile.php/147163/mod_resource/content/1/Craig%207%20Traditions%20article.pdf

Ghomeshi, J. (2014, October 26) Dear everyone [Facebook post] Retreived from: https://www.facebook.com/jianghomeshi

Gringrich, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Work of Jurgen Habermas. University of Regina. Retrieved from http://moodle233.msvu.ca/m23/course/view.php?id=3449

Levine, P. (2012, July 11). Habermas and critical theory (a primer) [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://peterlevine.ws/?p=9224

Rhetoric (n.d.) Oxford Dictionaries, retrieved from: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/rhetoric

Stowe, M. (2010, March 20) Jurgen Habermas Concepts, Communication Theory and the Problems of Modern Society [Web log post]. Retrieved from: http://roadstarsociology.blogspot.ca/2010/03/jurgen-habermas-concepts-communication.html

Public Discourse (n.d.) Yahoo Answers, retrieved from: https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090419162716AAcJV96